The Next Big Thing
Jeff Favre’s 1980s garage band musical, now world premiering at Hollywood’s art/works Theatre, could easily end up becoming exactly what its title suggests: The Next Big Thing. Featuring a knockout score by Missy Gibson and Mike Flanagan, there’s both a lotta laughs and a lotta heart here—as well as two dynamic performances by young’uns Brandon Ruckdashel and Matisha Baldwin, the former already a much-buzzed about new kid in town (particularly in the gay print media, for whom he’s had no qualms about showing off his buffed designer bod) and the latter as a perfect candidate in the next Jennifer Hudson rags-to-riches sweepstakes.
Although clearly still in the moldable early stages in its development, this is an impressive beginning for The Next Big Thing, which takes place in 1983, leaving Favre with a plethora of material to spoof from our futuristic perspective. He tells the story of Chip (Ruckdashel, a little long-in-tooth for 16, but what the hell), a strong-willed teenager who saved a year’s worth of paychecks from his after-school job at Radio Shack to buy a sleek new Yamaha DX7, the first synthesizer ever offered on the commercial market in the early 80s.
The plan is to start a band from scratch in Chip’s suburban Chicago garage (Davis Campbell’s set, resembling Formans’ basement stoners’ clubhouse on That 70s Show) with his friends Robert and Mickey (Jason Director and Mike Thompson), fiercely determined to become the Next… well, you know. Improbably, neither of his friends seems to have ever played before and, though their transformation from stereotypical slugs right out of Animal House to seasoned musicians seems a bit farfetched, we’re still right there to root for these guys.
This is especially true because Chip’s tattooed former bikergirl of a hard-boozin’ single mother Melissa (played by composer Gibson of the indie band Breech) is so vehemently and sourly unwilling to lending her support to her wide-eyed son’s idealistic musical efforts, even though her rockin’ past includes her own 15 minutes of fame—or more like about 6½ minutes, leaving us to wonder if her own disappointment is the main reason why she’s so bitter or if there might be a deeper, darker secret to explore.
This first mounting of The Next Best Thing could quickly become The Next Even Better Thing in future incarnations but, although all the basics are in place already, including Favre’s interestingly quirky premise and continuously delightful, notably resourceful topical dialogue, things still need tightening up and beg for further exploration. As it is now, The Next Big Thing is crying out for a more satisfying and less pat construction as Favre’s tale unfolds, especially in its final crisis, which at this point feels tacked on too quickly and ties things up too neatly.
Without a more satisfying resolution in Melissa’s miserable life, not to mention a better healing provided for the obviously loving but somewhat estranged mother and son relationship, the audience arrives at the end of the ride without living through the middle part of the trip. Death is an easy out here, but without something to lead us earlier in that direction, it’s rather a safe way to head off to final bows.
Gibson and Flanagan’s original score, though memorable and musically exceptional, also needs a bit of doctoring. The gifted composers’ lyrics often seem to include too many words in a phrase, as though attempting to create a somewhat clumsy version of a rock opera. Even if these two might be the first lyricists in history able to rhyme “chorus” with “adore us,” their work isn’t quite finished yet either.
As directed by Favre and Rachel Maize, the other problem at this stage is the unevenness of the performances; although all the actors are enormously sincere, their styles are not always compatible. Ruckdashel is the standout in the charisma sweepstakes, Baldwin has the pipes of a superstar, but even though the playwright admits the character of Melissa is based on Gibson, sadly she should not have taken on the role. Her bio states her original background is in theatre, but her instrument is rather rusty still, making her Melissa a glaringly one-note character with continuous pained expressions and a tendency to act bent forward from the waist to achieve emphasis.
Neither Director or Thompson are particularly well used, something that needs fleshing out in Favre’s script, and as written, Heather Belling as the airheaded heiress Cyndi and Curt Bonnem as a typically odious music business exec don’t have much to work with yet beyond the obvious. In contrast, Ellen D. Williams as Melissa’s adoring dyke buddy Mary Lou manages to transcend the more clichéd and underwritten aspects of her character, principally in the musical’s heartrending eleventh-hour ballad, “Without You,” which she knocks right out into the continuous flow of weekend traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Beyond any slight and easily correctable reservations, however, The Next Best Thing is definitely something to enjoy as is and experience in this courageous pioneering stage of its development; with some judicious reworking, this flashy, clever new musical could have a very rosy future indeed.
The Next Big Thing plays through Aug. 16 at the art/works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Bl., Hollywood; for tickets, call 323.960.4418. www.artworkstheatre.blogspot.com